Magical Madeira: A Look at the Luxury Hotel Scene

Belmond Reid’s Palace has three swimming pools — two seawater and two heated — offering sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean.

 

Anchored in the Atlantic off the coast of North Africa, Madeira has enticed generations of vacationers with its subtropical climate, botanical gardens and dramatic scenery. The archipelago is one of Europe’s oldest holiday destinations, and it’s now also seducing Americans with easier flight connections and a number of new accommodations. Here’s a look at the luxury hotel scene.

An institution on Madeira island, afternoon tea at Belmond Reid’s Palace scored a spot in the bestselling book “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.” The hotel is a destination itself, with cruise ship passengers arriving to partake in the afternoon rite, seated on the terrace overlooking the Bay of Funchal. But staying the night in this clifftop retreat is something else entirely: Tasting chef Luis Pestana’s Michelin-starred cuisine at William Restaurant, followed by a nightcap at the bar (ask for barman Luis Sousa’s signature cocktails made with Madeira wine), then watching the sun rise over the Atlantic in the morning. 

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For those who treasure the hospitality, attentive service and genteel traditions of grand Old World hotels, this is an address to note. First opened in 1891 by the sons of Scotsman William Reid, the hotel quickly became the place to stay for celebrities, royalty and politicians. (Empress Elizabeth I of Austria was one of the first guests, and Winston Churchill stayed at Reid’s Palace in 1950.) Back in the day, the hotel’s entrance was positioned on the ocean — guests arriving by ship were brought to the shore in small boats, from where they took the elevator up to the lobby. Today, the cliffside elevator still operates, whisking you down to the tidal seawater pool carved into the rocks.

There are also two heated swimming pools from where you can admire the Atlantic and the hotel’s salmon pink edifice looming over the botanical gardens. Belmond Reid’s Palace is divided into two buildings: The original historic structure, threaded with multiple staircases, and the newer Garden Wing. Each of the 158 guestrooms has a balcony or terrace with ocean views, and comes with bath products by Portuguese brand Banho and lovely welcome amenities: A decanter filled with Madeira wine paired with traditional cakes. No. 984 is the highest room at the top of the hotel. 

Rooms such as No. 872, a Deluxe Junior Suite, have a double vantage point with two separate ocean-facing balconies. The Presidential Suites are named in honor of former notable guests Churchill and George Bernard Shaw. Traveling with kids? Choose one of the four family suites with terraces on the garden. Fun Fact: Some repeat guests who have been staying at the hotel for decades have a name plaque that’s hung outside their room during their stay. For VIP bookings, reach out to Pauline Engelse ([email protected]; 011-351-291-717-163), director of sales and marketing.

Belmond Reid’s Palace hosts a Madeira wine tasting every Tuesday. Experts from the Madeira Wine Company come to the hotel to share their insights. Other on-site activities include garden tours, Pilates classes, tennis and workouts with the personal trainer. Hidden away in the gardens, the spa has ocean-facing treatment rooms, and is managed by Rossana Pinto ([email protected]; 011-351-291-717-085). Farther afield, the hotel can arrange a number of excursions to explore Madeira’s astounding scenery. Think sailing to the Desertas Islands, a sunrise trip to one of the island’s highest peaks, hiking and wine tours. For advice, reach out to Isabel de Portugal ([email protected]; 011-351-291-717-025), guest relations manager.

The Manor House at Quinta da Casa Branca is decorated with Venetian chandeliers, antiques, paintings and tapestries. 

Nearby, the Quinta da Casa Branca offers a luxurious immersion into authentic Madeiran culture. The hotel itself is a bridge between past and present; the historic Manor House was the former home of Madeira wine merchants, while an L-shaped contemporary building — a stunning architectural achievement — houses 43 guestrooms opening onto the award-winning gardens. Managed by Alberto Reynolds, the boutique hotel first opened in 1998 and is a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World

The tone is set at breakfast, which is laid out next to one of the swimming pools and the 19th-century Pool Villa. Served with coffee roasted in-house, the buffet is heaped high with tropical fruits, fresh baked breads and local delicacies such as dried fish or coconut-topped roasted bananas. The garden setting is inspiring, but it’s the warmth of the staff that stays with you all day. Many of the team members have been with the hotel for decades; the head gardener, who leads a team of seven, has tended these exquisite gardens, planted with more than 260 botanical species, for 44 years.

Booking Tips: Until 2015, the Manor House was maintained for private use for the family. Now, it offers five suites decorated with museum-worthy antiques. The historic Pool Villa, also decked out with gorgeous décor and ornate ceiling moldings, is now an exclusive one-bedroom suite next to the main swimming pool and the Garden Pavilion Restaurant. Note that the Premium Garden Rooms are quite popular, as guests pull sun loungers from their terrace directly onto the grass. We also like the two Deluxe Suites (like No. 500) at the end of the gardens. For assistance with VIP clients, reach out to Marília Gonçalves ([email protected]; 011-351-291-700-770), front office and reservations manager.

Don’t miss dinner at The Dining Room, also housed in the Manor House. Stepping into the hall is like being welcomed into an aristocrat’s private home; the décor includes Venetian chandeliers, a monumental 17th-century tapestry and antiques from the family’s private collection. Highlights on the menu include the black scabbard fish filled with shellfish and champagne mousse and the suckling pig in two textures. The chef’s garden supplies ingredients such as artichokes, avocados, passionfruit and papaya.

Quinta da Casa Branca is a place guests come to unwind, as evidenced by the average length of stay (seven days). There’s a spa, gym and second (adults-only) swimming pool fed by a levada, or traditional Madeiran irrigation canal, next to a lush banana plantation. But if you can tear yourself away from this Eden-like sanctuary, Nuno Carvalho and Carolina Alves on the reception team can set up special excursions and activities: A private island tour with a picnic, fishing trip, outdoors yoga session in the middle of nature.  

New luxury hotel openings are adding to Madeira’s allure. Perched on the cliffs next to Belmond Reid’s Palace, Les Suites at The Cliff Bay opened in October 2019 with 23 elegant suites overlooking Funchal Bay. This is the most exclusive hotel for Madeira-based PortoBay Hotels and Resorts, which currently manages 13 hotels in Portugal and Brazil. PortoBay purchased the land years ago in order to protect it from development. This grassy promontory is home to two century-old houses, which were restored and connected via a new contemporary wing that’s built into the cliff, camouflaged in the gardens. It’s tastefully decorated with furniture sourced from global voyages and eye-catching touches like driftwood transformed into objets d’art. There are two suites above reception, with the remaining 21 in the new building. Nine of these suites open onto their own private gardens. The vistas are mesmerizing: You gaze out at the infinity pool and the Atlantic beyond. 

Les Suites at The Cliff Bay has 23 suites overlooking the Funchal Bay. Shown here is the 678-square-foot Artistic Suite.

The other historic house is occupied by the terrific new Avista restaurant. Choose from two menus — Mediterranean or Asian — and enjoy shared plates with killer views. The outdoor terrace has a chill-out lounge with a fireplace. Guests have access to the facilities of the five-star sister hotel next door, The Cliff Bay, including the spa and two-Michelin-starred restaurant Il Gallo d’Oro. For VIP bookings, reach out to Militina Vieira ([email protected]), sales director.

Opened in summer 2019, the Savoy Palace is Madeira’s first member of Leading Hotels of the World. Previously, this prime piece of real estate was the site of the Savoy Hotel, a historic Madeira landmark, demolished in 2009. The subsequent development was stalled for years until new owners, Savoy Signature Hotels & Resorts (of the AFA Group), acquired it and invested heavily in the project. Famous designer Nini Andrade Silva created the hotel interiors as an homage to her native Madeira. Silva and her team custom designed all the décor, from the monumental chandeliers to the headboards inspired by traditional Madeiran embroidery. 

Towering over the skyline, the 15-floor building houses 352 guestrooms and an additional 190 timeshare units. But the hotel’s goal is to create a boutique feeling inside. For example, the soon-to-open Jacaranda Lounge & Club will offer a premium experience and additional amenities (such as a private rooftop infinity pool) for suite guests. The top digs are the two enormous Presidential Suites, complete with pool, hammam and kitchen, while the 14 Pool Suites (like No. 1272) have plunge pools and sky-high views from wrap-around terraces. Reach out to Cristina Mata ([email protected]) in the front office for bookings.

Savoy Palace’s Galaxia Skybar has an infinity pool and provides 360-degree views over Funchal Bay.

The rooftop Galaxia bar and infinity pool has 360-degree views over Funchal Bay, making it a prime spot for watching Madeira’s famous New Year’s Eve fireworks. Other facilities include eight F&B outlets, a gym, a conference center that can hold 1,000 people, and the Laurea spa, Portugal’s largest at 33,000 square feet. Inspired by Madeira’s UNESCO-listed laurel forest, the 11-room spa offers a full circuit of facilities: Sauna, steam room, Jacuzzi, ice fountain and sensorial showers. The centerpiece is a beautiful swimming pool backed by a waterfall. Note that there’s an access fee of 35 euros (waived when you book a treatment). For assistance with bookings, reach out to spa manager Susana Correia ([email protected]). 

Accessing Madeira

TAP Air Portugal currently flies from eight North American gateways to Lisbon: JFK, Newark, Boston, Miami, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Toronto. Passengers can take advantage of the airline’s stopover program in Lisbon before traveling on to Madeira (a one-and-a-half-hour flight). By summer 2020, TAP will increase frequencies on service from North America, adding 15 new weekly flights.

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